Do you remember seeing Avatar for the first time?
I do – I was a young teenager at the time, and me and my friends schlepped out to the one decent cinema in a hundred-mile radius, buried at the back of a retail park on a grey Invernesian afternoon, to see what was being touted as THE movie that was going to put 3D cinema on the map. It’s still the only movie I’ve seen in the cinema that the audience actually gave an ovation to, and honestly, at the time, it felt right – the 3D and general visual effects were downright insane to me back then, enough to paper over the obvious cracks in the storytelling and other, you know, basic filmmaking techniques.
But that was 2009, and it’s only now, 13 years later, that we’re getting the long-awaited Avatar sequel from director James Cameron, with a trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water. In those thirteen years, Avatar has slowly shifted in the cinematic narrative to basically a good showcase for cool tech against the backdrop of some very hacky writing and pretty dreadful performances. As the sheen of the impressive visuals began to wear off, what was left was just a relatively boring eco-fairytale where the tall blue things shagging by inserting spark plugs into each other (as was my understanding), and films that could balance new technology with genuinely compelling stories pushed it out of relevancy.
Regardless of Avatar’s quality as a piece of storytelling, the visual effects were truly and genuinely stunning, helping to spark a trend of 3D blockbuster cinema, and generally marking a shift from real effects to entirely CGI worlds as a standard in the mainstream. The 3D trend that the first Avatar film started has been and gone, while special effects have made some marked improvements in the last decade to make the original look pretty dated. I think what intrigues me about this sequel is just how on Earth (or on Pandora, but you get my point) it could possibly match the cultural impact of the original movie.
Looking at this trailer – yeah, it looks lovely. It really does. The special effects look very solid, as you would expect after thirteen years in development, and the exploration of
the boring underwater level a different side of Pandora and the new ecosystems and life that could support looks cool, though, to me, not a lot cooler or more impressive than the original, given the near decade and a half that’s passed since. There’s one line of dialogue in the whole thing.
James Cameron, in the lead-up to the release of the first trailer for Avatar 2, he said that he believed the movie would “push the limits of what cinema could do“. Now, that’s a broad statement, and given Cameron’s focus on the technical aspects of the movie (he discusses frame rate before he talks about any of the performances, for example), I have to assume that’s going to revolve around stuff like 3D, special effects, and other technical improvements.
But truly – is that the most important thing here? Or should it be? The first Avatar has been widely criticized since its release for the poor, cliched storytelling and banal characters, even as it’s CGI work remains highly praised. For Cameron to come out swinging so hard in both his interviews about this film, and this trailer, focusing almost entirely on the technical and visual aspects of the film over stuff like plot, character, and performance, suggests that he’s not looking to improve the things people actually took issue with, but rather to test how far he can push the new technology available to him.
Personally, I’d rather watch a film with less impressive visual effects and a story and characters who really hit home, but I’m not convinced by this trailer or anything else around The Way of Water that Cameron is interested in delivering that. And trust me, I know that the impressive visuals and technological cutting-edge this movie is riding on will be more than enough to sell it for a lot of people, and I genuinely hope it lives up to that hype for that audience. But, thirteen years after being blown away by the visual effects for the first movie, I want Avatar 2 to focus on great storytelling as opposed to looking great on the biggest screen possible.
By Lou MacGregor
(header image via ComingSoon.Net)